88 keys and no guarantees

by pieces of moments


It’s really not my intention to become your YouTube VJ, but it just happens to be a treasure trove of free information and I could not (as a self respecting researcher) not share my findings with you. This evening I was clicking around and stumbled upon a BBC series called “Imagine” that did an episode on “Being A Concert Pianist.” I spent the first 19 years of my life convinced that was to be my profession, so naturally, the title caught my eye.

I must have been about 3 or 4 when I first put my hands on a piano. My family had just moved to the United States and were staying with my American grandparents whilst my parents looked for a house and jobs. My grandmother was a very talented pianist. She was one of those that could improvise at the drop of a hat and sightread like a machine (two mad skills I did not inherit). My grandfather was a sports star in high school but had a great appreciation and love for music. His brother, my great-uncle, was an talented jazz saxophonist who possessed a warm silky voice. My father and his brothers play guitar. Other musicians in my extended family have gone on to world fame. So, basically, it was in my blood to be, at very least, fascinated by the stuff.

Well, I was more than merely fascinated. My grandmother taught me my first piece of music, then we moved into our own house – without a piano. My grandparents kept hinting at lessons for me in music, but I was taken heart and soul with dance and art lessons. Not ones to give up easily, my grandparents gave my mother a piano for her birthday one year…so that I could start taking piano lessons. Like a moth to a flame I was drawn to the thing and started playing around on it by ear. Still, no lessons. My grandparents grew ever more restless about the lessons and began to ask more frequently when they would commence. Well, my parents were cautious about regulating something that I seemed to just love naturally, but finally, the lessons came and didn’t stop…until I was 16.

You see, I loved the piano. I loved it so much my life was the piano. I would spend hours listening to recordings, preferably in the dark (like any good young Romantic), I would read any book I could put my hands on about composers, pianists, operas, I attended concerts, I practiced for hours. Recitals and competitions were a regular occurrence. I won’t go into the details, but suffice to say that by the time I was midway through high school I was already burned out. I was emotionally frustrated with chasing perfection from a black and white jumble of pins, strings, and varnish. It at turns seemed to me my best friend, or a cold-hearted bastard that was aloof and indifferent. Maybe I wanted it to speak to me directly, like my beloved books. I’m really not sure. The thing I do know, is it amounted to me desperately wanting to find my identity outside of the piano – something I had never had or experienced. To the dismay of my piano teacher (and thankfully with full support from my parents) I told her one fine day I was going to cease taking lessons, that I was taking a break to explore my other interests.

Fast forward.

Within a year I was taking lessons again because I successfully discovered myself apart from music, and because it was obvious pretty much from the moment I stopped that it was something that had to be a part of my life. It just had to be (“Es muß sein!” for you Beethoven fans out there). However, what revealed itself to me more and more as the years went on, and as I went into my undergraduate education, was while I had the talent and fortitude for a professional career as a performer, I simply lacked – well, no, I didn’t lack – I possessed the desire to keep part of myself for myself. Perhaps it was that taste of being someone defined by my personal character, and only my character, for a year that “ruined” me. What I do know is the exact moment I decided I couldn’t do it. I was 18 and in a piano lesson with a very talented teacher in his small cramped studio that was mostly mirrors. We were discussing whatever Beethoven sonata I was working on at the time, and he began waxing eloquent on how while he was at Yale he sacrificed greatly to know the pieces in his repertoire inside-out. He spoke like a martyr regarding refusing to see people, turning down social invitations for the solitude of the practice room. I’ll never forget the feeling of my blood rushing around under my skin more and more rapidly with every word he spoke. All I could think to myself was “that sounds miserable, you poor, cold, creature.”

Time passed. I re-evaluated yet again, and after a short period I switched my major from piano performance to music history and literature. I performed frequently, and gave a lecture/recital as my senior project (only the second student in the music history department so to do, as most would rather just write the paper alone). I found a balance that worked for me musically and intellectually/academically. Finally.

Does that mean that I had no regrets? Well, yes and no. I would be lying to you if I told you that I never wonder what would have happened if I decided to continue on the performance track. I often compare it to ghost appendage sensations people experience after an amputation. I deliberately decided to cut off a career on the stage, but often I could (and still can) have apparitions of some parallel life I could have had lived out in airports, train stations, back stages, under bright lights, transient, always in flux. But as exciting as that version of existence might have been, in the end those were the exact reasons I knew I could never be fully happy inhabiting that life. I know I made the right choice, and I am very thankful that I had the insight to know what life I wanted to create for myself, even at such a young age.

What concerns me are the hundreds upon hundreds of young musicians out there who are convinced they will create a magnificent career for themselves on the great stages of the world but never quite get there, but not by their own choice, unlike me. This profession eats people alive. I think now there is more open support for these musicians, but on a wider scale it is still very much sink or swim. As noted in this documentary, students and their families sacrifice everything for this improbable dream of a making a living as a concert pianist. I saw this all the time during my own years as an aspiring  performer and more recently (and more potently) during the four years I worked at From the Top. The hard, cold, truth that is told too infrequently to all these bright young things is 1) you might not make it, things may just not align the way in which you envision, and 2) there’s a chance you might get halfway through your conservatory career and realize you don’t want it after all. Then what? What do you do with the guilt of hundreds of thousands of dollars your parents spent on lessons, instruments, camps and summer festivals, when now you know you wish to be an engineer? Who prepares them for that? No one. They get depressed, or get bitter. Some decide to teach, but their heart may or may not really be in the teaching, if it was a forced back-up plan.

I hope we can find real and practical ways to talk about this end of things to young musicians. It’s never fun to think of a Plan B, because it almost always smells of defeat, but it must become a part of the larger conversations had at conservatories and in teaching studios. There are so many options in music, and life is so large, it seems to me only fair to show a student the world of possibility outside the pinpointed and microscopic intensity of their dominating dream.

This quote from the end of the documentary struck me, in part because it is a spot on description of the piano, but mostly for the last sentence regarding Benjamin’s fate as a professional:

The great technical challenge of the piano is that basically, it’s a machine. You press a key and it makes a sound. What pianists do is dedicate their waking life, practically their whole being, into battling with this machine, to make that sound their own. It’ a subtle and yet super human struggle, and it’s this struggle that can make the performance of great pianists feel so close to musical perfection. Benjamin of course will never need to find out how to become a great pianist – he’ll either be one, or he won’t.

Let’s hope someone is around to emotionally prepare him for the possibility of “won’t.”

{clip above is ‘Part 9.’ the pianist speaking at the beginning of the clip, in case you don’t know, is Evgeny Kissin}

Imagine…Being A Concert Pianist (BBC):

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6 Part 7 Part 8 Part 9